Salvation in Jesus Alone (Acts 4:5-12)
by Tim Denne
Sunday 26th April, 2015
In Acts 4 we read that Peter and John have just prayed for and healed someone in Jesus’ name, and are speaking to the people and teaching them about the resurrection of the dead. This thoroughly annoys the Sadducees who, with the Temple guard, arrest them. The next day they are given a chance to speak and
Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders, if we are being examined today concerning a good deed done to a crippled man, by what means this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by him this man is standing before you well. This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” Acts 4:8-12 (ESV)
Today I want to talk about the idea of salvation, what it might have meant to those hearing Peter, and how that challenges the way we think about salvation.
What does salvation mean to the recipients?
Peter and John have been arrested by the Sadducees for preaching about the resurrection of the dead. The Sadducees appear to have been a ruling class amongst the Jews, who stuck to the Biblical law and did not believe in any kind of resurrection. Theologically their beef with Peter and John may have been no more than it would have been with the Pharisees, who did believe in resurrection.
Their real problem seems to be more with over-excitement.
The Jews were living in the land promised to their ancestors, but it wasn’t really theirs. It was the Roman province of Judea governed by a prefect and an occupying army. The Jews were given some autonomy over their own affairs but they were not in charge.
The Sadducees were worried about the people getting over-excited because they are trying to keep their heads down with the Romans. The Sadducees don’t believe in any kind of afterlife. Their hope is of restoration of Israel and freedom from Rome, but antagonising the Romans will only make things worse. They are pragmatists and politicians.
Jesus’ followers always had a different set of disagreements with the Pharisees, the other major and more popular Jewish group.
The Pharisees problem with Jesus and his followers was because they believed that the Jews’ freedom from Rome, the restoration of the land to the people of God would only come when they were forgiven of their sins and this would only happen when they were living rightly; observing the law. Jesus and his followers were a problem from this perspective because of their attitude to the Sabbath and the extent to which they seemed to make no effort to only associate with the righteous.
But all of these Jewish groups were thinking about salvation (or rescue) in terms of freedom from Rome and restoration of the land.
Stepping back a bit, in the Hebrew Scriptures they were familiar with, salvation (both in Hebrew and in the Greek version, the LXX) is used with reference to:
- rescue from Egypt being God’s salvation (Ex 14:13; 152; Ps 106:9-10);
- rescue from the exile in Babylon (Isa 46:13; 52:10-11);
- God’s help to Israel in battle (Deut 20:4 LXX; Judg 3:31); and
- salvation from the judgement of God in the sense that God allowed bad things to happen as judgement on Israel; this included their current situation (Hos 1:2-7)
Salvation was all about God saving his people from slavery, assimilation into other nations or death. And they understood their place in the world; their salvation was ultimately for God’s own sake so that he still had a people through which the whole world could be blessed.
Salvation for the Jews was not about whether they were God’s people or not, whether as individuals they were in or out. They knew they were God’s people. Salvation was about whether they could live in peace in the land, some kind of precursor to the kingdom of God.
Some of their hope for salvation settled on the idea of a messiah. He would deliver Jerusalem from the Gentiles, gather those who were still dispersed, and rule in justice and glory. It comes to its head in some of the Jewish literature written in the time between the Old and New Testaments, such as the Psalms of Solomon that talks of a new king and son of David who would purge Jerusalem from the nations that trample her down, throw out the sinners, and would gather together a people who he would lead in righteousness.
But to the Jewish leaders Jesus was certainly not the source of salvation; he was part of the problem, particularly because he didn’t seem to be standing for righteousness as they would define it, particularly in his attitude to the Sabbath.
And, provocatively, Peter uses language here originally used of David in Psalms 118 (the stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone) to described Jesus. The same cornerstone (or capstone) language had been used in Isaiah 28:16 also to talk of something that can be trusted in Jerusalem (possibly the temple in Isaiah’s time) in contrast to the corrupt leaders. The cornerstone language used of Jesus is not only saying that Jesus is the foundation for faith in Yhwh; it is doing so in a way that contrasts him as cornerstone with a deeply suspect leadership that was built on a foundation of lies; they have made lies their refuge and taken shelter in falsehood (Isa 28:15).
But the main point is that the original hearers are not concerned about personal salvation. They are concerned about the fate of Israel. Whether it will enjoy peace and whether it will start to play its role as light to the rest of the world. Salvation was about restoration of Israel to its proper place.
When we think of salvation, we tend to think of it in very personal terms. Am I saved? Or is such-and-such saved? But I think there are many similarities to this Jewish idea.
The Greek word used in the NT (and in the Greek OT, the LXX) is soteria hence theology relating to salvation is soteriology.
The same word that is used here “there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” is used:
- when Jesus heals blind Bartameus and tells him his faith has made him well (Mark 10:52); or
- the woman with the issue of blood who is healed when she touches Jesus’ garment and Jesus says that her faith has made her well (Matt 9:22); and
- the demon-possessed man who was made well when the demons entered the herd of pigs (Luke 8:36), and
- there are numerous other examples.
Salvation has this sense of wholeness; things are as they should be.
And we get an idea of a bigger picture when we read Paul in Romans 8 talking of how we are saved in the hope (or confident expectation) of our resurrection and the restoration of creation. Paul uses language of creation eagerly waiting for us. Jesus’ resurrection was a pattern for us and the world as a whole.
So the idea of salvation hasn’t got narrower, it’s got much bigger. It hasn’t shifted from Israel getting its land back to me going to heaven; it’s moved from the land of Israel to the whole of creation coming back to how it should be. The world is being saved; not just you and me.
So how does this happen?
There are loads of theories of what Jesus achieved when he died on the cross and exactly how that act achieved salvation. They include:
- penal substitution – we deserve the penalty of death but Jesus took our place; or
- ransom theory – as in the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – Jesus (Aslan) dies in a deal with the devil to save everyone but tricks him when he rises from the dead; or
- moral influence theory – Jesus’s supreme act of love inspires us to love
And there are several more which are more or less helpful. But Tom Wright (Surprised by Hope) makes the interesting point that the answers we get to the question of why Jesus died depend on the question we ask. So that if the question we ask is “’how can I get to heaven despite the sin of which I deserve to be punished?’ the answer may well be ‘because Jesus has been punished in your place’. But if the question is ‘how can God’s plan to rescue and renew the entire world go ahead, despite the corruption and decay which has come about because of human rebellion?’, the answer may well be ‘because on the cross Jesus defeated the powers of evil which have enslaved rebel humans and so ensured continuing corruption.’”
And this is the thing – if salvation is about restoration, then the act that says “all is made well” is the resurrection. Sin or corruption no longer leads inevitably to death. Scripture mixes the cross and resurrection together, so we get Paul speaking of Jesus being raised for our justification. It’s tempting to try to separate these out and to say Jesus’ death did this and his resurrection that, but the Bible writers seem annoyingly less interested in this kind of systematic theology than many of us are.
Now a quick word on sin; I started by saying that for the Jews at the time of Jesus, their status, the fact that things were not as they should be, was related to God’s judgement on their sin. And the shift to things being put right depended on forgiveness of sin. Jesus deals with sin in a way that rings bells all over the place for the Jews: as sacrifice of atonement and Passover lamb. And the way to think about this sacrificial system is not so much God requiring sacrifice for sin (he makes it clear elsewhere that he has no particular interest in sacrifice) but for Israel it was an action that they could take and then get on with life. One of the problems with sin, as Romans 7 makes clear, is that you can end up focussing on your sinfulness rather than on life. An atonement sacrifice dealt with sin so they could get on with life. That’s what Jesus did once and for all.
And remember, in the Gospels Jesus forgives people on the basis of his authority (not his death). His resurrection vindicates this. He demonstrates that he is Lord and thus able to forgive. As Richard Beck (Experimental Theology) puts it: “you are forgiven because Jesus is Lord. Not because Jesus died. You are forgiven because Jesus is judge, and he will forgive those who appeal to him for mercy.”
If we think that salvation is just about me and what happens to me after death, then getting ready for the future is just a mystery because it is all very “other” to now.
But if it’s this bigger picture, that God actually has in mind the rescue of the world from injustice and corruption in all its forms, and that the future resurrection of our bodies applies to the world also, then the response is very different, and preparing for the future includes using God’s gifts, just as Peter and John were healing people in Jesus name, and working for justice or peace or health or wholeness or the environment in a way that anticipates a future in which all of these are put right.
And salvation is not just from something it is to something. We are saved to live differently. The living differently doesn’t bring the salvation. Jesus does. But the living differently is kind of the point.
So when we read the words in Philippians 2 about working out your salvation in fear and trembling, I do not think this is saying we should be worried about whether we are saved, but that salvation is so tied up with living differently, that to work out your salvation will mean you inevitably clash with the culture in which you live. Just before this fear and trembling line Paul is writing to the Philippians about Jesus being willing to go to his death rather than claiming his god-ness. The point Paul was making to the Philippians was to be prepared to be persecuted also. Working out their salvation may mean they too face death.
Our risks are thankfully much reduced, unlike Christians in many parts of the world. But the underlying message is still the same. Salvation should mean something because it is actually saying I want to be part of this brand new world in which there is justice and peace and wholeness and in which creation is not groaning that can only come when Jesus is lord and salvation means we can and should start to act that way now.
The offer of salvation to others must still be made. Jesus has done all that needs to be done but we still need to choose to live in hope. I used to travel to work with someone who would regularly greet me with “another day closer to death”. And so it is. But it’s also another day closer to resurrection. Living in a way that anticipates it is declaring our trust that it will happen and that there is no other name but Jesus by which we and the whole of creation can be saved.